Gallup Inc., the prestigious polling firm that has closely tracked presidential elections since 1935, has told Politico that it will not conduct any horse race polls during the 2016 presidential primary, and that it will not commit to tracking the general election, either. The organization, which was embarrassed after predicting a Romney victory in the 2012 election, says that accurate polling is increasingly difficult at a time when more people communicate through the internet and cell phones rather than through land lines. Horse race polling is important this primary season because it is used to determine which candidates qualify for debates, but media organizations (like NBC, WSJ, and FOX), rather than major polling firms, are conducting the bulk of these surveys.
We’re happy that Gallup is dropping the horse race. Every election cycle, we see lots of ink spilled on endless speculations about presidential prospects months and years out from the election. Even if we had good data, the sheer volume of this commentary, and the fact that so much of it is written so early, already makes much of it meaningless. And now here comes the oldest big firm in the business saying that the numbers themselves are flawed.
Gallup’s decision won’t stop publications from releasing stories about this or that candidate moving up or down a few points in the polls, but it is a strong illustration of the way that much of what the media presents as “serious news” and “hard news” is really infotainment. To survive the transition to the web, journalism needs to do more than develop better business models: It needs to get much smarter about what it is doing and why. Reducing horse race coverage would be a sign that publications are taking that problem more seriously—but we’re not holding our breath.